Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Is the Pain of Circumcision Truly "Brief"?

By Clara Franco © 2011
Original article in Spanish. English translation and edits by Danelle Frisbie and Clara Franco.
Leer en Espanol aqui.


One of the most popular excuses that some parents and doctors use in their decision to unnecessarily amputate the healthy prepuce of a newborn male is the mythological argument that "babies do not feel pain."

There seems to be a general consensus that the pain babies feel is negligible and "not remembered." Worse is the lie some parents are fed when they are told their newborn "cannot even feel pain because his nerve endings have not yet matured," or similar fallacies.

Let's pause for a moment to think about this. Repeat it with me: Newborns cannot feel pain. Newborns cannot feel pain. Newborns cannot feel pain. Therefore, it must be perfectly ethical (and certainly permissible) to slap my newborn baby, leave him to cry alone, pull his hair, step on his toes, or put my cigarette out on his skin. If I restrain him to a board, terrify him, amputate part of his genitals (with or without anesthesia) it doesn't matter - because this not-fully-developed-bundle-of-cries "cannot feel any pain." He's not yet really human. At least not all the way.

That babies cannot feel pain is of course horrifyingly false. I wish I did not have to resort to links, but video clips often say more than I possibly can with even a thousand words. Please, watch these and tell me that newborns feel no pain:

They all do…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hW1a9VUu4i4

He does too:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAGNnqyNidY

And so does this one:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTB_tlKpPuY

It is one thing to say that babies cannot feel pain, and another thing to say that they will not remember the pain they feel. Let's look for a moment at memories. I do hope that the fields of psychology and psychiatry continue to advance so that we finally come to a collective understanding that even if we do not consciously remember every single experience in our lives, they all impact us in one way or another. Each experience shapes who we are and who we become - whether or not it is on the forefront of our conscious memory. And yes, this includes our time inutero, even before we are born into this world.

In fact, the newborn experience of pain may be even more transcendental than in an older child or adult. The reason is simply that a baby cannot rationalize the pain he is feeling - he cannot name it - he cannot articulate it, reflect on its origin, have any idea of the root cause, or how to avoid or escape the pain. This is the big difference between merely experiencing pain versus enduring intense trauma.


A young girl who desires for herself to have pierced ears knows that it will hurt, but she can recognize the source of the pain, rationalize it, measure it, and face it as a sacrifice in exchange for something positive, something she desires: to wear earrings.

A two-year old accidentally bruises his finger while playing with the door. He cries and is very upset, but he begins to understand that his pain had a cause, and that the cause is avoidable. Next time he won't play with the door like that.

The preschooler who falls from the stairs feels pain, but it is not traumatic as she knows what the stairs are, what falling down is, and can recognize the connection to the pain she feels. She is able to learn how to manage the stairs so that falling down and pain are not consequences of using them.

A baby cannot do any of these things. For the days- or weeks-old baby, any pain can be traumatic because he is unable to identify causes, consequences, and ways to avoid and escape. He cannot rationalize the pain, or understand why he is feeling such things. Any pain that a baby feels is a first-time pain: it is downright terrifying. Furthermore, his world revolves around his mother, her warmth, milk, comfort, voice, smell, protection and nothing more. She is everything to him. Any traumatic pain experienced will be associated with her - the only person and thing he knows in the world at this point. It is yet another reason that we see an increase in failure to thrive, breastfeeding complications, "colic," and insecure attachment post-genital cutting.


From the first day they discover they are pregnant, many mothers go about doing special prenatal activities that are said to enhance their baby's brain development and memory. Prenatal exercises, listening to relaxing music, reading to baby inutero, and tuning into Mozart and Bach and Beethoven in hopes of raking up baby's I.Q. points are commonplace today. At birth, mom will use special message, or early babyhood stimulation to enhance learning and memory. Mothers readily recognize that all of these early experiences - from inutero to the postnatal days - impact and influence their baby. How is it then that we could choose to recognize positive impacts on the brain and body leading to benefits for baby, while negative impacts on the brain and body (such as genital cutting) are ignored or dismissed? If we know that gentle massage, and touching a baby softly and warmly leads to improved digestion, hormone balance, neurological firing, awareness, better sleep, alertness and attachment, how could we not also recognize that intense pain and brutality upon the body of our baby also impacts him in many real and profound ways?

Male circumcision is considered by many to be genital mutilation, a non-consensual surgical amputation that does the child (and the man he will become) much harm and no “good.” It is a completely unethical act to take a healthy male, of any age, from two hours old to one hundred years old, and forcibly amputate a healthy and useful part of his anatomy against his will or without his consent when there is no medical need to do so. This would remain true even if circumcision surgery was entirely pain free. Even without pain, genital cutting - forever altering the penis and its form and function - would be a violation of a man's fundamental human right to bodily autonomy. To amputate a healthy, functional body part without medical need is harmful, and it carries negative consequences, regardless of whether there is pain in the amputation process or not. It is wrong to harm, even if the act itself is a painless one. To sexually assault an adult who cannot feel anything, and will not remember anything, because s/he is drugged… Is this right? Or wrong?

Back to reality: Circumcision does hurt. And it hurts quite excruciatingly. This brings us back to the double excuse commonly given for this amputation: that the baby’s pain is negligible because it will be forgotten, and second, that it is a "brief pain."

It seems we have forgotten the fundamental principle of time being relative to our ages. Where did the old "time passes by so fast as we age" go? Have we truly forgotten? Time seems to pass faster as we age because it is relative to our lived experiences to this point. It is such a simple principle, that every one of us has noticed, and can understand using elemental math: the more years we live, the smaller proportion of our lives each year represents. A year seems like an immeasurably long time when we have only lived four of them; yet it goes by like a whisper when we have been through eighty of them. Every year of our life seems shorter because each of them represents less and less of the percentage of time we have lived. In elementary school, the class hours feel endless; yet there are scarcely enough of them to do anything with by the time we’ve graduated college. When you have only lived several hours, each of them is for you what a quarter-century is to Grandpa. And if you’re a newborn, then you’re basically stuck in an endless "right this very instant."

For a newborn then, a painful experience is not only traumatic because he cannot explain it, understand it, or justify it, but also because in his perception of time the pain is endless.

Let’s calculate some simple proportions and compare the length of a fifteen-minute operation (more or less what the tearing and cutting portion of a standard circumcision surgery lasts), proportional to the lifespan of a two-day old baby; and extrapolate it to the length of a 30 year old adult. The adult has lived for 30 years, which are roughly the equivalent of 10,950 days (only taking into consideration 365 days per year), which is 262,800 hours, or 15,768,000 minutes. An intense pain that lasts fifteen minutes only represents, to this 30 year old, 0.000095% of his life. Manageable, I suppose.

But a two-day old baby has lived for just 48 hours, and a grand total of 2,880 minutes. To bear genital tearing and cutting for fifteen of them, is the equivalent to 0.52% of his lifespan. Does it still sound quite small? Like a minuscule number? Let’s see what happens if we expect a thirty-year old adult to bear excruciating pain for 0.52% of his life. We would be asking him to bear a pain that lasts for 81,993.60 minutes - 1,366.56 hours, or 56.94 days. Any volunteers who will be willing to feel knives and clamps on their penis or clitoris for almost fifty-seven straight days? But it’s such a simple and quick procedure!

Imagine this, for fifty-seven days and nights straight:



For argument's sake, let’s assume our baby is not two days old, but eight - the age at which genital cutting occurs in some households. And let’s say the procedure does not last for fifteen minutes, but only five minutes. (Some mohels claim to be able to "cut faster.") We’d be asking our baby to bear pain equivalent to 0.43% of his life. For the thirty-year old, this would be like feeling the scalpel (with no anesthesia) for 113 hours - only 4.7 days and nights! That’s much better! Right? A torture that lasts for 5 days and nights straight, without a break, is a practice belonging to the most atrocious of wars.

What if our baby is six months old? Fifteen minutes are for him 0.0057% of the life he has known. For a thirty-year old adult, this would be like a skinning that lasts for fourteen hours. Interestingly, very few women in North America today even elect to go through natural labor "pains" (functional, necessary, beneficial pain) for fourteen hours straight without intervention and pain relief... 

The conclusion in this matter, then, is not that we must wait a longer time before performing an unnecessary, painful and harmful amputation (although doing so at 30 would certainly make the pain more "brief" than to do so at birth). Rather, it is that this is a pain that babies should never be subjected to in the first place - a suffering that no one should be forced to endure without their full and informed consent or certain medical necessity.

The fallacy of believing "it is better to cut early, because our baby won’t remember and it’s quite brief," is a falsehood that takes little logic to debunk and see through. On the contrary, to cut the genital organs of a baby who cannot even understand what is happening, and to put him through a horrific pain that represents, for him, a grotesquely long time, is much more harmful and cruel than it would be to subject even a non-consenting adult to the same.

 advocacy apparel at MadeByMomma


Clara Franco is the director of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers Mexico chapter. Read more from Franco (in Spanish) at Mexico Intacto, follow at Mexico Intacto on Facebook, or find Franco's work in English also at:


Intactivists: Those Uncommon Activists!


Circumcision: The Most Twisted Logic in the World

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